An alternative model for a Vatican Council of the Laity

Prior to Pope Paul VI’s January 1967 motu proprio, Catholicam Christi Ecclesiam, establishing the Council of the Laity and the Pontifical Study Commission ‘Justice and Peace’, much discussion and consultation took place among the Specialised Catholic Action movements and indeed the whole community of International Catholic Organisations (ICOs) regarding the model to be adopted for the new structures.

In this article, I’m going to look at one proposal set out in a document from the Mexican JOC that I suspect was drafted by a chaplain. Written in imperfect English, the unsigned document is headed “The Conference of the OIC. The organisation for laity previewed by Par. 26 of the Decree on Lay Apostolate.”

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It’s marked in handwriting with the date “1967” which, if accurate, was either after the publication of Paul VI’s motu proprio or at least too late to have had any impact on its drafting – not that this was at all likely!

Nevertheless, it is illuminating for the insights it provides into the effort that the movements and ICOs invested in developing proposals for a Holy See laity “organism” that would genuinely reflect the wishes of the Second Vatican Council as expressed in Apostolicam Actuositatem §26.

Not only does it illustrate the kind of structure those movements and ICOs hoped for but it shows what a synodal model for the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life could still be.

The work of the ICO Conference

The author begins by acknowledging the work done by the ICO Conference in response to an inquiry launched by the Secretariat of State on the structure for the proposed “organism for laity.”

Recalling an extraordinary session of the ICOs held in Sion, Switzerland in spring 1965, he records in somewhat quaint but understandable English that “the conference took more fully conscience of its proper mission and of its originality.”

Although the ICOs had arrived at the assembly with “often contradictory” points of view by the end of the two day meeting they had managed to arrive at a unified position regarding “the nature and aims of the new organism.”

The principal aim for the new Vatican laity body would thus be “to facilitate the participation of the laity to the life and the total mission of the Church” and it would be desirable for it “to have a new nature and an original style.”

Its tasks would be as follows:

a) Help and stimulate the participation of the laity to the life of the Church by its informations and its technical services.

b) To undertake studies and researches, taking into account each time it will be possible, all what is going in the different institutions, organisations and countries; in that sens, it will have the caracteristic of a “clearing house”.

c) To receive, to evaluate the preoccupations of the laities in the different areas of their activity and in the different countries of the world: the new organism would be thus the means of exchanges and of dialogue in the sense in which Pope Paul spoke of “family dialogue”.

d) To contribute to the fact that the central organisms of the Church open progressively to active collaboration of the laity; it would be its function to entertain relations of work with other levels of the Roman Curia.

Its role would thus focus mainly on promoting dialogue, information sharing and collaboration among the existing movements and ICOs as well as with the institutional Church.


Significantly, the Mexican JOC document also emphasises the limitations of the proposed new organism, which “will not have to exercise by itself an authority.” In other words, it would be not have a juridical or regulatory role.

On one hand, the reason for this was that the Holy See has “other means” to exercise such authority. Another important reason, it would seem, was in effect to exclude the possibility of the new organism interfering with the internal functioning of the movements and ICOs.

Doing so would require “other competences and other places of reflection than those destined to assure the participation of the laity in the life of the Church,” the document states.

A bottom up, representative structure

The critical part of the Mexican JOC proposal is the proposed composition of the new structure. Here it begins by noting that the number of laity involved should be “as important as the number of ecclesiastics,” a very reasonable and modest proposal.

And these lay members of the new Vatican laity body would be chosen as follows:

One part by the conference of international catholic organisitions,

Another part from representatives of different movements of the laity organised on a national level, with the provision for an equal distribution according to continents, languages and kinds of apostolic movements;

A third part, a minority, of eminent catholic personalities chosen according to their personal competence.

The members from these two latter categories should be chosen from lists presented by national Councils of the lay apostolate mentioned in paragraph two of number 26 of the Counciliar Decree.

The president of this organisation should be a cardinal; it is advisible that there be an ecclesiastical vice-president and a lay vice-president together with a lay person who should be the secretary general.

In this model, it would be up to the ICO Conference to elect one third of the members, who would thus represent international groups and movements.

Another third would be made up of representatives from national and local movements of various kinds and from various continents, presumably appointed by some kind of selective process since it would be difficult not to say next to practically impossible to hold a global election.

The final third would be selected on the basis of their “personal competence.”

Basically, it’s a very moderate proposal which also provides for a cleric (cardinal) as president, clerical and lay vice-presidents, and a lay secretary.

It is also notable for the fact that two thirds of the proposed structure are drawn from grassroots international and national movements and organisations, in other words with movement expertise.

Only one third would therefore be chosen for their professional, theological or other field expertise.

Yet even such a modest proposal proved went too far for the officials of the Roman Curia who drafted Catholic Christi Ecclesiam and Paul VI himself.

The role of the ICO Conference

The Mexican model also provided for a major role for the ICO Conference itself, which was intended to preserve its “specific role” and “autonomy” while “working in close collaboration with the new organisation.”

Thus, the model foreshadowed that the national branches of the ICOs would contribute to the creation of national councils of the laity.

Similarly, the ICOs could also contribute their experience of “international affairs” not just in relation to “official international organisations” but also “other problems of international affairs,” i.e. those issues involving non-government organisations (NGOs).

It also foresaw key roles for the International Catholic Centre in Geneva, the UNESCO Centre in Paris as well as other “future” similar centres. The ICOs would have important roles in mission countries where Christians were a minority.

Finally, the ICOs would continue to maintain direct contacts with the Holy See Secretariat of State.

Secretariat for Justice in the World

I won’t consider it in detail here but the Mexican document also goes on to outline a proposed model for a “Secretariat for Justice in the World” as envisaged in Gaudium et Spes §90.

Here, the document proposes the “creation of a permanent Committee of experts” whose main role “would be to study the problem of developemnt, to develop a philosophy of development and the doctrine of action for international social justice.”

This committee would act as a “brains trust” but would once again would not have a directive role.

Concluding reflections

From the above, we can see that the Mexican model provided for a Vatican laity body that would be genuinely representative of the international movements via the ICO Conference.

It proposed mechanisms to enable the movements to play an active role in the structure as envisaged by the Second Vatican Council in Apostolicam Actuositatem §26

It provided for a good balance of representation of both grassroots experience and academic expertise.

It emphasised the promotion of dialogue and cooperation both horizontally among the lay movements and vertically with the Church hierarchy – and at every level from local to global.

Surely these are all hallmarks of the kind of synodal structures that Pope Francis has called for?

In this sense, the 1967 Mexican document points a way forward to the kind of remodeled Vatican laity body that ought to be considered by the Second Assembly of the Synod.

Stefan Gigacz


1967 Mexican model